SACRAMENTO — Three young men from wealthy San Francisco Bay Area families spent more than a year working on their perfect crime.
They converted three prisoner transport vans, built an underground bunker to hold their hostages, even made a lead box to hold the $5 million in ransom they expected to collect to block radio signals if authorities inserted tracking devices.
Then they kidnapped a school bus full of children and buried them under mounds of dirt in a crime that haunts the victims nearly 40 years later.
“They basically stole our whole youth. Our childhood was completely turned upside down,” said Jodi Heffington-Medrano, who was 10 at the time.
Brothers James and Richard Schoenfeld were convicted along with their friend Frederick Newhall Woods in the kidnapping, which lasted more than a day before the children were able to dig their way out. Now, only Woods remains behind bars, and he is asking a state parole board to free him.
An appeals court ordered Richard Schoenfeld released in 2012, and Gov. Jerry Brown paroled James Schoenfeld in August. Woods, now 64, is set for a parole hearing Nov. 19. Backers, including a congresswoman and a retired state appellate judge, argue that he has served enough time and should be released.
Yet what an appeals court called “the unprecedented mass kidnapping” still resonates in Chowchilla, a town of fewer than 19,000 residents in the San Joaquin Valley.
The nation’s attention was drawn to the central California dairy region in July 1976, when 26 children and their school bus driver disappeared.
Some thought they must have been taken by space aliens, so completely did they vanish, recalled Heffington-Medrano, now a 50-year-old beauty salon owner still living in Chowchilla. Frantic parents, school officials and police scoured the countryside in vain. Helpless neighbors overwhelmed her family with food, as if they were preparing for a funeral.
The children’s lives changed in an instant when three masked men carrying sawed-off shotguns boarded the Dairyland Union School District bus as driver Ed Ray brought them home from summer school.
Ten-year-old Jeffrey Brown put his hands up and shouted, “We didn’t do it,” thinking it was a joke. But Lynda Carrejo Labendeira remembers being so frightened that she crawled under her seat. Now a teacher herself, she also was 10 at the time.
Near the ambush site, the kidnappers concealed the bus and told the children to leap from the bus to the transport vans so they wouldn’t leave footprints.
Jeffrey’s sister, Jennifer Brown, was 9 years old. She slipped as she jumped and cut her knee, leaving a 1 ½-inch scar.
“It’s still there, almost 40 years later, on my knee. But that is nothing compared to the emotional scars I’ve had to live with and still live with,” she said.
Now 48, she is married with two teenage sons and works as a secretary at a university in Tennessee. Yet until recently she couldn’t sleep without a nightlight.
“I’m still scared of the dark,” she said. “You have a way of looking at life differently. … I know what crazy people are out there.”
The children and driver were ferried more than 100 miles to a quarry in Livermore owned by Woods’ father. There the driver and children, ages 5 to 14, were forced into a buried moving van that had been outfitted with mattresses, water containers and some snacks. The roof had partly collapsed from the weight of the dirt, forcing the kidnappers to shore it up.
The children, famished after hours on the road, quickly ate most of the snacks. The flashlight and candles soon sputtered out, leaving them in darkness in what Heffington-Medrano called a collapsing tomb.
The air soon reeked of urine and vomit.
Brown remembers lying on a mattress and crying for hours.
“I literally said my prayers and said I would quit fighting with my brother and go to church every Sunday if He would get me out of there,” she said.
Battery-operated blowers kept air circulating — until they too began to fail.
“We would not have lived much longer. We would have suffocated to death in there,” Labendeira said.
The men did not intend to hurt the children, Woods insisted at his last parole hearing in 2012. They were just an easy target they thought they could use to force the state Board of Education to cough up $5 million.
A prosecutor said the three men planned the kidnapping as if it was “the crime of the century.”
The buddies staked out several school districts before deciding Dairyland was rural enough that a bus could be hijacked in broad daylight with no one noticing. They followed the bus for weeks to learn its route.
“We needed multiple victims to get multiple millions and we picked children because children are precious. The state would be willing to pay ransom for them. And they don’t fight back,” said James Schoenfeld, according to a transcript of his April parole hearing.
“We put them through hell,” Woods acknowledged.
The terror ended about 28 hours after it began, when the bus driver and two teenage students clawed their way out of the buried van and found workers nearby, who called police.
Brown, Heffington-Medrano and Labendeira oppose Woods’ parole and feel betrayed by the release of the others.
“The emotional scars that they put on all of us, they’re countless,” Heffington-Medrano said.